Antique, crumbling Japanese silk paintings at Decatur House get new life after 140 years

The California Room in Decatur House; Japanese silk paintings

Learn more about the conservation of Kunitsuru’s paintings:

washingtonpost.com/antique-crumbling-japanese-silk-paintings-get-new-life-in-decatur-house

 
The six Utagawa Kunitsuru paintings hung in the Decatur House’s California parlor on the second floor from the late 1870s until the beginning of the 21st century. The more than century-long presence of this series became a trademark of the Decatur House’s interior space. The earliest known photographs of the Decatur House interiors showing these paintings are from the Historic American Building Survey of 1937.

As artwork, Kunitsuru’s paintings provide a beautiful example of the Japanese artistic tradition. The subject matter appears to be a representation of the seasons. The first figural panel depicts a woman in an early spring setting, surrounded by a plum tree with an open umbrella as either snow or blossom leaves fall; the plumb symbolizing daring character. The second depicts a man standing, carrying a sword, presumably a samurai. The third panel, one of the two landscape scenes, shows a pair of cranes under a Cherry Blossom, or sakura, tree, indicating fidelity or strong bonds. The fourth panel shows a woman with a shamisen stringed instrument, surrounded by another blossoming tree, in front of what may be a building. The fifth panel depicts a winter scene as a hunched over woman marches through a snowstorm. This panel contains the artist’s signature and date. Finally, the sixth panel, and second landscape scene, shows what may be a pheasant or rooster in a blossoming tree. After consulting with the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery and several local conservation studios, there is no definitive understanding of the series’ intended hanging order. Additionally, each season is not equally represented. It is possible that these six could have been from a larger set of twelve, each depicting the twelve months of the lunar calendar year, rather than just the seasons.

Their current state as kakemono-style hanging paintings is most likely not original. From architectural research and examination of the second floor parlor walls, the paintings’ prior manner of hanging in Decatur House was as a type of wallpaper. Each silk panel was glued and nailed to the wall and then framed with a printed decorative wallpaper border, which has been preserved and still exist on the walls today. Prior to their application to the wall, they were likely originally made as hanging scrolls. Presumably, after several years, the moisture of the plaster walls began to weaken the fabric, and the paintings were removed from the wall, and adhered to a board, framed in an interpretation of the Japanese kakemono-style hanging system–as each is now attached to wood pulp board and bordered with brocade.

Once conserved, the paintings will serve an important educational role, as both artwork and as important tools in teaching American presidential, political, and cultural history.

 
Japanese Silk Painting at Decatur House